Featured post

Buy All Quiet on the Home Front here.

All Quiet on the Home Front is almost sold out. You can buy the last copies from ICVL STUDIO. It is also available now at the wonderfu...

Friday, 9 November 2018

Black Art, Black Hollywood, Bristol University and Doing the Right Thing



Whoever Heard of a Black Artist, Britain's Hidden History was a wonderful BBC documentary that looked at the artists, themes and ideas that emerged from the 1960s on about what it meant to be a black artist in Britain.

It looked in particular the Black British Arts Movement, a group that started up to counteract the marginalisation of black artists and to present new ideas on what art was in 1980s Britain (and here's an interesting read on why that time really mattered). Black Art was about marginalisation and the patronising tone of the establishment but it was primarily about great art and the energy and ingenuity that went into making it.

The 1980s was a time which had a huge before and after in photography, a time where the subcultural influences of the 1960s and 1970s were exploding into political and artistic directions with photographers like Vanley Burke, Ingrid Pollard, Clem Cooper, Pogus Caesar, Colin Jones, Dennis Morris, Neil Kenlock and many more creating a politically charged record of the time that extends into landscape, art and fashion. But the programme didn't really touch on that, it was far more conceptual than that. But as some of this work is possibly the most politically relevant and interesting of all the 1970s/1980s documentary work (which currently has such high profile here in the UK) to be made, I'm sure we'll be seeing more of it soon, but then again, I'm not holding my breath.

That's art then. Then there was film. It was really enlightening and entertaining to watch Simon Frederick's Black Hollywood: "You've gotta have us" on TV. It's a series in which Frederick (who also has Black is the New Black, photographs of successful Black Britons on show at the NPG) interviews a whole slew of successful actors, directors, writers and producers from Harry Belafonte to Boots Riley on the barriers, borders, excuses and lies put up to prevent black people making or appearing in films. It's about racism in the film industry then, but actually first and foremost it's about all these amazing films that have been made and the brilliant ways that people talk about them - and the ways that people tried to stop those films being made - the excuses ranged from "People aren't interested in that sort of thing" to responses like "A Black Henry V, whoever heard of such a thing!" which would be fine if movies were about any kind of accuracy, historical or otherwise. "A rabbit that talks, whoever heard of such a thing, A car that goes back in time, whoever heard of such a thing. " You could go on and on.

It gave me the excuse to watch some movies for the first time - films like Carmen Jones. a movie with an all African-American cast filmed in 12 days by producer/director Otto Preminger, and then watch  films again like Do the Right Thing.

One thing I'd forgotten about Spike Lee's film is how considered it is, how thoughtful and considered it is. Also notable is the use of a still photograph in the film. Running like a thread through Do the Right Thing is  the symbolic power of the photograph as the character Smiley tries to sell to whoever will buy them his hand-coloured pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

One person who will not buy them is Sal, owner of the local pizza parlour, a restaurant which has a wall decorated with stars of Italian background; Sophia Loren, Sylvester Stallone, Robert de Niro etc etc, they're all there.

And so the film goes on, with every character flawed, imperfect but thoroughly human in some way, every character filled with a spike of life that rubs up against other spikes, until Radio Raheem (another flawed character who plays Fight the Power and nothing else at full volume on his boombox) gets killed by the police. That was then, it could be now.

And then all hell breaks loose, and violence against the person is responded to by violence against property and the demons of the past are let loose on Sal's pizzeria. History isn't static in Do the Right Thing. It's embedded in the present, its traces live on, its traumas evident as the older you get the more injustice you have witnessed, the more it needs catharsis, the more time folds in on itself as repressed anger explodes into the destruction of Sal's pizzeria. It's not a like for like response, it's not an eye-for-an-eye, it's impotent at heart, another expression of rage, but if that's what you've got, that's what you've got.

But then there's Smiley's picture of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and ultimately that picture does get shown, it does get put up on the wall. Because pictures matter, they contain within them repressed histories, memories, injustices. They can have beauty, they can have violence, they can have depth. They can be like the character Mother-Sister who is all dignity and grace, until Raheem is killed and the depths of pain, memory and unexpressed anger explode into agonised screams of "Burn it Down, Burn it Down".

Pictures are like that. What you show, what you see, what you acknowledge is what matters. It mattered then and it matters now. And acknowledgement isn't much to ask.



I watched Do the Right Thing one day, the next day I saw this tweet on the new staff lounge at the Royal Fort Gardens at the University of Bristol. It features a painting of the Tyndalls Family, a family which had major slave-trading connections, and the Royal Fort was built with profits from the slave and allied trades. In other words they are a family who made their money and built their reputation on the back of kidnapping, imprisonment, rape, torture, and general brutality, all of which somehow evaporated over the distance of the Atlantic Ocean - and time.

It's part of Britain's amnesia and  the historical gaps that you find all the time when you wander around places like Bristol and Bath in particular, where the classical architecture is a constructed facade behind which all kinds of horrors lie. Again, they're a bit like Mother Sister in Do the Right Thing. There is the beauty, but behind it there are beatings, rapes, whipping and lynching. The difference is Mother Sister is on one side of that, the Royal Fort and the Tyndalls Family on the other.

And again, what you show and how you show it matters especially in a city like Bristol. And what you don't show and what you don't say. Sometimes that matters even more.






Thursday, 8 November 2018

Katherine Longly and my favourite book of the year


Last but not least a quick heads up for Katherine Longly's fantastic-but-pricey (it's the product of  a Reminders Photography Stronghold Workshop) collaboration on Japanese eating, disorders and neuroses. If you can't afford it you can see it at the Tipi Bookshop on the Polycopies Boat.






Chris Killip will be signing his brilliant Ponybox newspapers there as well. They are wonderful and look great with real nice pricing touches for the community the pictures were made in.

And Tipi will have some editions of Sohrab Hura's beautiful love story between his mother and her dog Elsa, Look It's Getting Sunny Outside. Which is probably my favourite book of the year.

And if he doesn't then somebody else will. Check out all the signings here from wonderful people at Akina (good luck Simone and Soham), Journal, EA. Witty Kiwi, Rorhof, L'Ascenseur Vegetal, Lyre, Gost, Dalpine,  and many more.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Arsenic, The Universe, Panama and Everything




More quick notes on books starting with the Eriskay Connection (and you will find them this week in Paris on the fantastic Polycopies Boat), a publisher who make beautifully designed and quite serious photobooks which approach subjects with a definite aura of sobriety.




Universe by Jos Jansen is a visual exploration of the cutting edge of scientific research. If you want to know what the edges of scientific imaging looks like, this is the book for you. Universe is s a visual template for how we frame this way of seeing, a kind of visual check sheet for the Scientific Gaze - which is where the Medical Gaze, the Surveillance Gaze, the Anthropological Gaze, Eugenics, and I'll stop there because it doesn't end nicely. You want to know where the end of the world will come from. The answer might be here.





The Arsenic Eaters by Simon Brugner slips into that scientific way of seeing - that's what Eriskay is all about - and examines the fascinating world of arsenic eating, but with added folklore and superstition. So it's science and superstition which is really what science is all about when it comes down to it, albeit superstition of a scientific bent. The basic story is a long time ago that is not really that long ago, it's within living memory....

Actually living memory is quite long ago. You've still go people alive whose met people who would have met Napoleon. There are people alive who knew people who knew Mary Shelley when she wrote Frankenstein, there are people alive who knew people who remembered the Opium Wars. I'd better stop there before...

Anyway, people used to eat arsenic and Simon Brugner decided to follow the thing and photographed the archives, the places, the people, and the region of Styria where the practice was especially common. Essentially, Styria was a backward place filled with backward people, ugly backward people who were lethargic, bad-tempered and nasty. Until they started eating arsenic, which made you lively, vivacious and attractive in a mountain environment kind of way. It warded off other diseases (they were all killed by the arsenic) and gave you superhuman strength. The only problem was - stop eating arsenic and you die. There are lots of questions left unanswered in there I know.



In the Heat by Arturo Soto meanwhile offers up an urban examination of the accident of history that is Panama, a country that invented by the USA to enable them to build the Panama Canal. So right from the start, Panama is an extension of the USA. This theme is pursued in In the Heat through images that captures the Panamanian elite's attempt to build a Panamanian Miami on the border with South America. There are images of resistance in the black and white urban landscapes, the sad shadow of Hector Gallego appearing in one image. Gallego worked on cooperative projects in rural Panama and was disappeared for his efforts. The image serves as both a reminder of the brutality of the landowning and military powers that have dominated the country, but also of hope, that things don't have to be this way, that there is something good in this world, there are people we can aspire to be like. And that is something we all need wherever we are.





David Jimenez puts himself through the seven circles




David Jimenez's new book, Aura, is a book of luxurious blacks and sparkling whites. It's elemental, with water, wind and fire creating a metaphysical enquiry into who we are, where we live and what we are.

While some of the pictures are quite literal, others you are left wondering what exactly is happening - there seem to be interferences and interventions but nothing is quite clear.



Birds figure large (crows and seagulls), so do horses, snakes and fire. There are tree branches and wall markings, pairings that come together then fall apart. There are weird shadow plays on water, the figure of what seems to be Jimenez himself is put through the seven circles of hell, the illusion of our life played out in distorted form, so you're never quite sure what you're looking at.



It doesn't look quite like other books that operate on similar themes, it's a personal meditation that has flashes of Ravens and Cowboy Kate  operating amidst all the symbols. It's individual in other words, and when something doesn't look like something else, that's a reason to stop, look and question. Which is what I did with Aura. What's ultimately going on I'm not sure, but then that's true of everything.

Buy Aura here. 

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

A tyre-tracked Stream of Consciousness




Next up in this week's quick overview of books is Julia Glassberg's  Bike Kill, aka The book formerly known as Bike Kill, aka The Stinky Book.

Something happened with law and the title so it's not called Bike Kill anymore. It's a wonderful book, covered with rubber with an unashamed tire-tracked stream of consciousness all the way through.


And it does smell. It smells of the rubber it's covered in, rubber which mirrors the tyre-smears, soot-stains, smoke trails, paint spots, ash flecks and overall urban detritus contained within its rubber-lined pages.

It's super tactile and the black and white grain and dirt goes completely with the subject.

Buy the book here.




Monday, 5 November 2018

Kensuke Koike's Triple Publication

                               collage by Kensuke Koike from the No More No Less series



It's Paris Photo week so here are some books to celebrate from a distance.

The first up is Kensuke Koike's No More, No Less which you can also read about here.

The basic story of this is that  Kensuke Koike's No More, No Less collaboration with Beijing Silvermine (where Koike put his knife to prints from the Beijing Silvermine archive) is being published by three publishers, SKINNERBOOX, TheM ├ęditions, Jiazazhi Press/Library.






To make the books, Thomas Sauvin sent files of the original prints, albums and Koike's interventions, and said, go ahead, make a book, edition of 400. We'll see them in Paris. And that's it....

Nobody has seen more than one of the editions Koike and Sauvin have seen none of the books. There was no guidance so it will be a voyage of discovery for everyone.



The book(s) are being launched  during the ‘No More, No Less’ exhibition at A PPR OC HE fair, 9-11 November, 40 rue de Richelieu, Paris, with a book signing session on Saturday November 10th from 3pm to 5pm.

You can also find the books at the publisher’s tables at Polycopies from 7th to 10th of November, Bateau Concorde-Atlantique, Berges de Seine.

If you believe in the 'perfect book' you might see it as a competition. I'd see it as a chance for 3 different publishers to make three different perfect books. It's such a lovely idea and surrender of control.

Koike's collages and videos are a constant source of inspiration and outright pleasure to me so I can't wait to see what comes out.

And I hope that Kensuke can have a bit of a rest from cutting - if you've ever tried doing your own crappy homage to these (I do on a weekly basis) you'll know how much work these take before even allowing for the way of seeing combined with perfection that makes these work on such beautiful but complex levels.


Sunday, 4 November 2018

Ma Jian's China Dream: "We have to remain constantly vigilant"





There is a great profile and interview with Ma Jian, in this weekend's Guardian on the need for fearlessness in writing, on not being co-opted, on standing hard in the face of state violence, and not surrendering to it. I don't think many of us can be this brave, but it's always worth recognising and admiring those who can. And letting their stand against corruption, cruelty and violence (at huge costs to their own lives) influence us just a little bit.


Ma Jian, who wrote Beijing Coma, has a new book coming out called China Dream, a phrase first coined by Xi Jinping but now turned on its head by Ma in a novel that is about a leader who is driven mad by memories of his own corruption.

Here are a few snippets.

'Ma has responded “in a rush of rage” with a short, ferocious novel about the way turbo-capitalism and authoritarianism have combined to inform a Chinese dream that excludes all but a chosen few. “I wanted to give myself the challenge of encapsulating everything in as few words as possible,” he says, wryly adding that it will be interesting to see how the Chinese authorities react to the novel, given that they’ve outlawed so many “key words” online – “even the name Winnie-the-Pooh is banned because people joked that Xi Jinping resembled him”.

.....

“Living in the west allows me to see through the fog of lies that shrouds my homeland,” he writes in the foreword to China Dream. During the interview, he invokes Dante’s Divine Comedy: “It’s only through being expelled that the poet gets to see heaven and hell and purgatory.”

...

Everyone thought we could ignore what happened in 1989 [the Tiananmen Square massacre] and that economic expansion meant it would become increasingly like the west, but that has been a catastrophic miscalculation. China might have draped itself in a coat of prosperity, but inside it’s become more brutal than ever, and it’s this venomous combination of extreme authoritarianism and extreme capitalism which has infected countries around the world.”

...

“The disregard for truth is infectious. It also explains the rise of Trump. We need to protect concepts of humanity, and freedom can’t be taken for granted. We have to remain constantly vigilant. The more you buckle under these pressures, the huger the monster becomes. One’s responsibility as a writer is to be fearless.”

Friday, 2 November 2018

Pets, Fruit and Shrapnel: 5k from the Front Line




My second article on Anastasia Taylor-Lind and her work in Ukraine is up on Witness now. It's about the mapping of war, how people do that people do that psychologically, technically and how that determines how they see and experience the world. 
I think the point of it all is that the most interesting war photography does not show war in the way we traditionally think of it. War is a state of mind and it destroys from without and within.
In other words, mapping is not neutral territory. The references you use, the borders, the lines of control, the colours, what is shown or not shown — all of it carries a significance that extends beyond the map. Even eyeWitnesses’ time and GPS coordinates carry within them psychological, political and geographical assumptions that have embedded within them expressions of military and economic power.
This is something Taylor-Lind is aware of, and for her, the dilemma is how (in parallel with the more constrained mapping of the eyeWitness app) you can tell stories of people and places that are not usually told, but are absolutely central to how war affects the land, people, and daily life. How can you provide a new kind of mapping that is perhaps more human than that traditionally offered?
“Working with the app has forced us to think about how violations are taking place and how we can document that using not just the app, but also through the people who are living there,” she says.
Accompanied by Sopova, Taylor-Lind’s working process was to begin on the frontline photographing the shelling damage and then move away. And as she moved away, so the working process moved from the indexical precision of the eyeWitness to Atrocities app to something more personal, more narrative-based, that showed the psychological undertow of the war.
“We focus quite a lot on parents of young children and how parenting techniques are adapted in this environment,” she says.
“For example, what do parents tell their children the sounds of shelling are? Alisa started collecting these lists of what parents say: some people say it’s just thunder; other people say it’s the neighbours moving their furniture round; one mother and father we met said it’s a cloud exploding and when their daughter asked why does it explode, they said it’s because it was an angry cloud.”

Read the full article here. 

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

"Surrender Pronto or we'll level Toronto"





Damn, it's getting near to that time of year when you get the best-of lists. It's always tricky to choose books and you have to be careful because, as Gary Cohen points out in his formula for writing best photobooks list, you don't want to be too transparent.

1. Mine
2. Yours
3. My other friend’s.
4. This one book I don’t really like, but everyone else does.
5. The book that hasn’t come out yet, but will be a best seller.
6. This one that if I say I like it will be good for me in the future.
7. A book I helped produce.
8. A book I hate but I put on here to be controversial.
9. A book made in such small release nobody has heard of it.
10. The book my cat (scratched up) chose.

There's a few more categories to go in there (this one's surprisingly nice) but you get the picture.



I love lists but it's always worth remembering that best doesn't mean best, a list can have something that doesn't exist on it, something that someone has sarcastically suggested as best, best can mean most toxic, or boring, or pretentious, or conformist. Y

Or it can mean 'best'. Which isn't the same as best.



Anyway, After the Fact by Tony Fouhse hits the 2, and possibly 7 because I did get to see it in progress and maybe 9 because it was published in an edition of 200, which is actually pretty high these days.

That's 3 out of 10, which isn't bad.

After the Fact looks at the city of Ottawa from what seems to me to be a slightly paranoid point of view. It's the idea that I identify with Cronenberg's early films where Southern Ontario and the satellite towns around Toronto serve as a landscape for the dark underbelly of Canadian life. It's not all Canadian Bacon, eh! and mounties in other words.



The order of anglophone Canada, the Squarehead way of thinking as the Quebecois put it, is resolved through images that have embedded within them a surveillance aesthetic mixed with End Times with an Ontarian Winter bleakness to chip into any smooth edges.



It's also very local with nearly all the pictures made within a mile or so of Fouhse's downtown Ottawa home, so that adds a personal element to the bleakness. You don't seem to get too many photobooks that are explicitly about Canada and Canadianicity, so this one is especially good to see. No, it's great to see!

Buy After the Fact here.


Friday, 26 October 2018

'Boring is a Critical Term'




I was writing a review of Txema Salvans new book, My Kingdom, the other week during which I changed my mind half the way through. I like the idea of changing my mind because we do it all the time but very rarely see that lack of certainty referenced. Everybody seems to be very sure of themselves all of the time, even though in reality we're not.

I changed my mind was because My Kingdom is filled with really great photographs that are all to do with Spain, land, exploitation, despoilation, and a very complex sense of place. Salvans can photograph. But at the same time his book is added a political dimension by including extracts from the King of Spain's Christmas speeches to the Spanish people. The extracts are patrician in tone and tie in to the idea of contested political and geographic landscapes. So it works really well and does add somethiing to the book.


I wrote this, hedging my bets at every available opportunity because, as I said at the start, I'm dealing in big broad brush strokes and I'm not entirely sure of what I'm writing about much of the time. 
'Most photographic artists can’t take a picture to save their life. Photographic art in the more conceptual sense is rarely about ‘great pictures’ that stop you in your tracks and make you wonder at the stories that are unfolding within the frame. Most photographic artists aren’t able to take a good picture, let alone a great one. That’s why you have so much photographic theory, much of which is to justify why these rambling, amorphous projects are actually really important and often made by the theorists who write to elevate what they produce.
Again, that’s a bit of a harsh division, but we’ll go with it because it is so simple and essentially true (except when it’s not. I’m thinking of all the examples where it’s not true, but what the heck, we’ll go with it).'



I started off hating that use of text in the book, the size, the colour, the spacing, the font, the references, everything -  because it has a certain flavour, and that flavour is boring (to keep it simlify). It's something that is usually part of a package that is made up of a complex array of elements that when viewed as a whole seems profound and deep, but when unpicked turns out to be empty. Take the packaging apart and there is nothing left, all you have are a series of pointers to a gap that is filled by boring pictures. In the case of My Kingdom, I ultimately decided, there is a lot inside the package and the package adds something to that, and the text is part of the package.



Boring, as I read in a post on Twitter yesterday, is a critical term. Boring pictures, boring books, boring essays, boring organisations, boring ideas, it's not good however you dress it up.

But it seems there's almost an industry to uphold this idea of boringness.

I have a friend who used to teach on a really successful photography course. His course was understaffed and had loads of students but it was successful.

At the same uni, there was an overstaffed course with no students because the staff were lazy and self-satisfied - essentially it was funded by the successful course. It was decided there would be a merger and there was a consultation with the staff. The successful course staff were to be busy to spend much time on the consultation. they had two and a half full time staff and 100 students.

The useless course staff had loads of time (4 full time staff and maybe 40 students), so when they merged everything was done according to the useless course, with useless content that conformed to the interests of the useless staff, with the useless course staffing it, because it was all made to play to their strengths - which were really weaknesses.

The moral of that story is that people defend their own interests. Similarly, there are people involved in photography who, on the whole, are not able to make great pictures.  But they want to be artists as well. And because of that they decide not to like great pictures.

So it's almost like there's a whole industry constructed to uphold the idea of boring pictures. You sometimes look at work and wonder if a bunch of people haven't got round a table and one of them has suddenly said, "look we can't take pictures for shit, but what if we all wrote a bunch of stuff saying how it's not about the  spectacle of the great picture but about the minutae that we can actually do, something that elevates our monologues into work of great and profound significance. Jazza can wring the tiniest detail out of the smallest point and talk about it for hours and hours. No-one ever listens to him, so we all end up agreeing by the end of it. Isn't that a talent worth developing. And Mazza. Mazza can create a complex structure of arguments that hypnotise you into a world where they seem to make sense, until suddenly you snap out of it and realise you've been sucked into some parallel universe where the things that do matter don't, and the things that don't, do. And as for Chazza, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of what Mazza and Jazza are doing and can pretend a) that it makes sense and b) that it's really, really essential to understand this before you can even get up in the morning. What better skill in the world can there be than that."

It's a kind of gaslighting where boring is not a critical term. And gaslighting is not a critical term. And self-indulgence is not a critical term. If you're not interested in this, if you don't get this, then essentially there's something wrong with you. It's a top-down, hierarchical way of seeing the world imposed from a narrow cultural framework which values a certain kind of discourse above all others. It's limited by itself, and it limits others. It's a colonial view if you like. And it's joyless.

Which isn't to say that there aren't boring pictures that are really interesting, or unspectacular pictures that aren't profound, or that history and theory doesn't add a huge amount of depth and context to work.  Of course it does and if you're not interested in it, then it is likely that your work is going to be superficial and dull - and boring. it's just that so often, ideas are framed in such a hostile, and ultimately boring way. And they have a defensive element built within them that is designed to exclude. It's the discourse of sobriety but with extra nasty, delivered in a tone of authority with a little bit of brimstone thrown in for good measure; Heed me not and ye shall be delivered unto hell.

None of this means that there aren't spectacular pictures that are accepted as profound.





Yesterday I got the latest Chris Killip series of elevated newspaper books published by Ponybox and designed by Niall Sweeney. They're gorgeous. They're filled with fantastic photographs which are beautifully printed and have a whole thought process going on behind their design, publication and distribution.



There's one set of images of the last ships to be launched on Tyneside and they are most spectacular. It's terraced houses with massive ships in the background, made on a large format camera. They're just great and you know when Killip was making them he was thinking, 'Wow, Amazing!' or something similar.

Then you look at them and you go 'Wow! Amazing!' You can dress that up a bit, or a lot because it's Chris Killip and they're informed by everything else he did in the northeast of England, but that's just the filling to go between the Wow! and Amazing! It's the Wow! and Amazing! that comes first. That's the entry point, and not just for a chosen few, but anyone.

Anyone in the world can look at those pictures and say "Wow! Amazing!" and that really matters. Because that is the condition for going deeper into the images and cracking open the social structures, the economics, the financial systems, and everything else that lies beneath these pictures. And that's their ultimate sophistication then, and what really makes them great pictures; they draw people in, they are an entry point for deeper reading and understanding. And that matters.

It matters because if you don't have something deeper in your pictures, if you don't understand the history, the theory, the ideas that lie beneath the surface, then all you have is surface. Which is good for a chocolate box but not much more.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some cake and I want to eat it. And wait for great pictures to get boring - that won't take long.

And I'll leave it there...


Monday, 22 October 2018

Exploded Views and Story Arcs, Let's Start at the Very Beginning



           

It was lovely to go to Brussels and be, with Emilie Lauwers, Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez, one of the first speakers at the new Recyclart of the brilliant and super-lovely Vincen Beeckman  and many others. The setting was a room in an old printworks on the edge of Molenbeek, just across the canal from the West African car market (where cars are bought and sold and shipped off to West African ports). It's a great location with a great feeling.

I talked about my work, from Sofa Portraits to My German Family Album, and the dilemma of how to tell a story. And it's a dilemma I feel along with everybody else. It's the dilemma of having a mass of choices and having to make a choice. It's a problem I experience all the time - choosing is difficult.

That's a particular problem for the German Family Album. About 5 years ago, I casually mentioned to my mother (who was born in Germany) that I remembered these family pictures with Nazis in and did they still exist. Six months later she came back to me with a back with a bunch of albums and pictures in - from the 1920s through to 1943. From Sander and White Ribbon through to Leni Riefenstahl and Stalingrad. I looked at them and was stunned. They're great pictures, at a very different level to most family albums of the time because a) manyalbums were destroyed or at least censored in after-the-fact visual revisionism (that being said, there are still loads of albums still in existence) and b) they're great pictures in a way most family albums simply aren't..





So what to do with it. In the Sound of Music, there's the doh-ray-mi song which goes,

'Let's Start at the very beginning, it's a very good place to start. When you write, you begin with ABC, when you sing you begin with doh-ray-mi...

And it is a very good place to start. It keeps things simple. And simple is good. Start at the beginning. Start with the best pictures, start!

Starting at the very beginning is what Gerry Johannson does with his books. He sequences them chronologically, and it seems to work very well for him. It's easy, quick and people understand it.

It's all very linear and easy to understand. And in a world where understanding is at a premium, maybe that clarity of understanding is something we should aim for.

So this picture could be, and has been, the first picture in My German Family Album. It's a picture of my grandparents. It shows them apparently in love but they're not. Or if they are, it's one-sided. He's in love and she's disappointed. He's too old, too serious, too political (conservative with a small c), uninterested in the arts. She's the opposite.



That could be the starting point then. Here she is enjoying the sun - and I could show her in the sea, or the garden or at the zoo.


And here to hammer the point home is my grandfather, altogether different. The pictures back up the stories that are told. The pictures are true then (pictures have no truth value, let's clear that one up). The stories? Let's take them as being reliable.




Then it becomes a kind of love story in decline that flows down in a chronological manner as the two of them grow even further apart as she finds solace in the secret, platonic love of Bund, an army officer fallen on hard times who now tends the gardens of the local water castle.



It's even got an end point, written on the back of a picture - get food - which sums up where we are going and the gradual decline not just of a relationship, but of the very essence of being.

But chronological can be dull, linear can be dull. Last week I read this passage by Robin Wood on Satyajit Ray on the making of the Apu trilogy.

'In the West, we are conditioned primarily either by the classic Amecian cinemma with its taut narrative structures  in which when a sccen has made its point, we are carried swiftly on to the next, or by the European 'art' cinema with its tendency to intellectual thematic structures. We may feel, with Ray that we have already got the point when we are in fact continuing to miss it, for 'the point' may not be an extractable themastic or narrative issue but the total experience a character is undergoing.'

And so there's a cinematic way of looking at the story, with different characters (my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, or my uncle, perhaps most of all my uncle) in it, different voices, different points of view, different ways of telling the story.

You have those possibilities and they appeal because the pictures are very cinematic. That's embedded into the images as are photographic references. You get the feeling my grandfather, who took most of the pictures, was channeling a little bit of August Sander at times, or was influenced by neue sachlichkeit.

He worked for Siemens too, so you start seeing some Germaine Krull in there (and he would have seen them) and the pictures take on a very different sheen with the whole metaphor of family, power and Naziism making for visual and political overlaps.

    (Siemens workers)


The love story takes off too as my grandfather is increasingly absent, as children are born (my uncle, my aunt, my mother) as my grandmother spends more time away to be with her needy mother - and the understanding Onkel Bund - seen on the left below.

   (Onkel Bund with my grandmother and aunt)

And then tragedy. Bund is caught stealing a bag of potatoes from the water castle. He is publicly shamed and, virtually destitute, is forced to leave his most basic room in the castle.

Rather than face an uncertain future, he kills himself by laying his head on the train track outside the gateway to the Baron's property. His head his severed, there is blood on the tracks and my grandmother is heartbroken. When she dies in 1975, her children find an old box of her belongings in the attic of their rambling home. Included in the box is the bloodstained shirt that Bund was wearing when he died, still there forty years after the event.

That's not in the pictures, that's the story that is told. So how do you tell that, how do you incorporate that into the images so that the one riffs of the other, so there are gaps and pauses and arcs and a bit of emotional satisfaction going on. And everyone likes a love story, they're universal, so you know you're reaching an audience.

Things are complicated by the time. It's the 1930s and the Nazis are coming to power. That's in the album, it's the first thing you notice. It's there in the view from the window of my grandparents' apartment in Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), as Nazis march down the street on Hindenburg's birthday in 1932.

  (view from the family apartment window, 1932)


And it's there in salutes, swastikas and uniforms that suddenly tap into the visual and political history of the time (and are in many ways the least interesting part of the album) - the map below is from 1933 and details the number of impromptu SA torture camps set up in Berlin in 1933.




The Nazi imagery seeps in everywhere. It's there in the company days out my grandparents took at Siemens, a company heavily supportive of the Nazis, it's there in the replaying of Olympic medal ceremonies that Leni Riefenstahl filmed in Olympia, it's there in the gymnastic displays my grandmother performed. It's in the oak trees, the mountains, the water, the games, it's everywhere. And it's generic and it takes you into a different place.



And most of all it's in the way in which my uncle embraced the Hitler Youth from an early age, flicking what my grandfather called his 'Nazi paw' at all and sundry with his best friend Lothar (on the right below), son of the local SA chief.

    (my mother's christening)

My grandfather hated this. He wrote letters to the papers complaining about it, saying that the only good thing about a Hitler Youth uniform was that for the kid the lederhosen were made of thick material which protected their backside from the regular beatings they should all be getting.

There is a bit of redemption in the story. By the time he was 14, my uncle was reading books and taking self-portraits of himself as an intellectual. When the war started, he refused to fight and was signed up to the signals department and sent to the Eastern Front. He was at Stalingrad, but caught measles and was on the last plane out. So the story goes.

  (the Siemens Boat)

So there's that. There are pictures and stories, and there are the things that people bring to the pictures.

No picture is innocent, we bring our global knowledge, our library of images to them when we read them. So in the German Family Album, a train is not a train anymore, a row of low barracks in winter is something altogether different, a leather coat is as sinister as you want it to be. We've seen these things before, we think we know what they are, they infest our thoughts.

 

And that's interesting. Where do those images come from (the answer is fairly modern cinema), how do they pop up in our minds, how do they create memories of something we have no experience or knowledge of?

Before you know it, a simple story of an unhappy marriage and unrequited love has become a story with all these multiple elements and multiple characters wrapped around them, tying in to the before, during and after of the rise of the Nazis and all that went with it.



To take it all in, you'd need to work at a  reflexive level like the Act of Killing or Pictures from Home, but with a meta commentary - so Meta Maus on a much smaller, less tragic scale - told from the wrong side. Then the project becomes about the making of the project, about the images and how they tie in with the rise of the Nazis, how fascist ideology was embedded into everyday life, wasn't something merely contained in the salutes and the uniforms and the swastikas, but was there on a daily basis. It becomes a didactic, educational tool where you lay everything on the line. It's good to lay things on the line, to take things back to square one.

But that makes for an even more difficult choice. I spoke about this with Andrea Copetti at his brilliant Tipi Bookshop and he gave me the exploded view as a solution to the problem, as a possible structure.

This an exploded view of a guitar.



Here you have multiple parts and multiple choices. The complexity can be endless but it is given a structure, links are made by the original blueprint which forms a overlying edifice which the viewer can navigate.

What's good about this way of looking at things is that you can include everything if you want, as long as it fits into the broader structure and makes sense. you can have stratas, you can have a hierarchy of comprehension and meaning, you can make things opaque, you can make them transparent. And then you can redesign as you go, streamling your structure to make it as functional as possible.

The other thing is you can take things right back to basics and start at the very beginning. There are plenty of people who don't know who Hitler is, who have no idea of the Nazis, of the Holocaust, of any of it. So you can address the assumptions we make about what people know or don't know.

The problem with the exploded view structure is that it does limit the audience. It's a very structured, ordered, initially emotionally distant view. So it doesn't exactly draw people in. It's a view that preaches to the converted in some ways because it is meta..

The emotional story, in contrast, is universal, it draws more interest, it gets a much bigger audience and it does get the curiosity going. It's got the immediate recognition factor of a boy meets girl story arc. That appeals. The Sound of Music has a basic boy meets girl crossed with a man in hole story arcs. It's boy meets girl (with the complications of kids, a convent and Nazis). Mines boy meets girl, with complications of kids, Nazis and Siemens. But no happy endings.

So we're back at the beginning again. And that's a very good place to start... again.